Tarot Tales with The Magic Circle's Jonathan Allen

Magicians will be familiar with London's Magic Circle museum. Occultists, too, as it's home to Austin Spare's original tarot deck. Jonathan Allen, a curator at the museum, shares his tarot musings.

By: The College of Psychic Studies.   Posted

The Magic Circle, headquartered behind a quiet facade in London's Euston, is an illustrious society of magicians. Established in 1905, it has long championed theatrical magic and mystery. Artist & occultist Austin Osman Spare's original hand-drawn tarot cards lay undiscovered in its archive for many decades. One of The Magic Circle museum's curators, Jonathan Allen, found them, and has since studied Spare's tarot deck extensively. Here, he reveals his favourite tarot decks, cards, rituals and inspirations.

What's your favourite tarot deck?

"I'm biased, of course, towards Austin Spare's cartomancy deck, but I'm also a fan of Suzanne Treister's Hexen 2.0 deck that reinterprets tarot's conventional iconography as a celebration of radical counterculture misfits."

Austin Osman Spare Tarot cards

What first sparked your interest in the tarot?

    "Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas panels 50–51, in which the German art historian speculates on tarot's iconographic origins."

    When did you get your first deck?

      "I've collected various individual oracle cards over the years, mainly prompted by their artistic qualities. So those cards form a rather haphazard personal 'deck'."

      Lost Envoy - The Tarot Deck of Austin Osman Spare

      What do you remember about your first tarot reading?

        "Thumping dance music…I was at Lost Vagueness in Glastonbury."

        Which tarot card most represents you?

          "I tend not to personalise tarot cartomancy in that way, but as a researcher interested in the prismatic cultural history of magic, I do tend to follow the Bateleur's iconographic development. I've also spent lots of time thinking about the Strength card, due to the loss of that trump from Austin Spare's deck."

          The Magician, Major Arcana Tarot

          Any favourite tarot rituals?

            "When I was researching Austin Spare's cards, I constructed a facsimile deck and carried it everywhere with me for several years. Even now, when I handle those cards they open up a powerful imaginative channel to that period of research."

            What do you love most about the tarot?

              "What interests me about cartomancy generally is the capacity of small pieces of paper with marks on them to open a temporarily autonomous space of imaginative possibility. I experience something similar when engaging any artwork alongside another person: communication is immediately anchored in the present, and contingency cracked open."

              Quickfire round:

              Dominant colour in your wardrobe? Same colour as the bedroom walls.
              Dog or cat person?
               I have a profusely hirsute birthmark, so this question is challenging.
              What's on your bedside table? 
              Currently, a sheet of A4 paper sectioned off into quarters – to prevent over-writing – and a pen to scribble down any different REM dream cycles that I can manage to catch.
              Last movie you watched? 
              Re-watched, Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal (1989)
              Your guilty pleasure? 
              The concept won't parse.
              Your breakfast of champions?
               Kurt Vonnegut's.
              Favourite time of day? 
              Depends on the day.
              Where did you grow up? 
              Underneath the model railway that my father built (for himself) in my bedroom.
              Last thing that made you laugh? 
              Perversely, a woman frowning disapprovingly when she spotted a man carefully photographing a beautiful, but dead, pigeon on the street. Analysts go figure.
              Have you ever seen a ghost? 
              Yes, many. All artworks are a return of types.

              All Austin Spare Tarot images © The Magic Circle

              Jonathan Allen spoke on Rediscovering the Austin Spare Tarot Deck at our Tarot Weekend in November 2022.

              Join our newsletter to receive updates on our events.